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Metrolink is pairing up engineers

In response to the fatal crash in Chatsworth, the agency is adding a second operator to some commuter trains.

September 27, 2008|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

Under new pressure to swiftly increase safety measures, Metrolink will begin adding a second engineer to some of its commuter trains in the first visible reform since a deadly crash in Chatsworth.

Chief Executive David R. Solow made the announcement Friday at a meeting of Metrolink's Board of Directors.

He said the backup engineers will come from a pool of employees normally used to replace primary engineers who are on vacation, sick or out on training. Previously, when those employees were not running trains, they performed administrative work or collected fares.

There are 10 to 15 relief engineers available each day, Solow said, but the number riding shotgun would change, depending on how many already were filling in for colleagues.

"It's just an interim measure until we can find something permanent," he said in an interview. "We're going to use them as much as we can as another set of eyes."

The backup engineers will be posted on routes near where they are usually assigned, places such as San Bernardino, Moorpark, Oceanside and Lancaster.

"We may have to make some changes over time," Solow said.

The Metrolink chief said he was not sure if a train with two engineers had taken to the rails under the new measure. A Metrolink spokesman who said he would provide the information did not get back to The Times.

Metrolink's board also asked for an audit of how the agency operates overall, "a critical analysis, what is working, what needs improvement," said Vice Chairman Keith Millhouse, who is also a Moorpark city councilman.

The move toward two engineers comes after a Metrolink train failed to heed a warning light on Sept. 12 and crashed head-on into a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth. Twenty-five people died and 135 were injured in the most deadly commuter rail accident in modern California history.

Although the accident remains under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, early indications are that human error caused the crash.

Since the collision, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and several other members of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- Metrolink's largest local financial backer -- have pushed the regional commuter railroad to add safety measures, such as automatic braking devices and a video camera to monitor locomotive crews.

MTA members also had urged Metrolink to add a second engineer to its cabs. Earlier this week, after Metrolink board Chairman Ron Roberts said at a U.S. Senate hearing that the agency was considering the proposal, officials at Metrolink headquarters in Los Angeles downplayed the possibility.

Asked Friday why he had decided on the extra engineer, Solow mentioned the hearings held by California's Democratic U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and the MTA.

"People think this may be a possible way to ensure that the engineers are concentrating on what's going on," he said. "Whether it's the right solution over time, we'll have to see. It's an action we can take immediately with whatever qualified personnel we have."

In addition, Solow said, the commuter railroad has increased its on-board testing of engineers. Already, 2,000 of these tests had been taking place each month, Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said.

Solow also told the board that Metrolink officials would be meeting next week with Wabtec Railway Electronics Corp., which manufactures a positive train-control system -- a type of anti-collision technology -- being tested on the Rock Island Line in Illinois.

A rail safety bill the House of Representatives passed this week requires railroads to equip their trains with positive train-control systems by 2015. Solow said that although the systems are in the testing phase, he hopes there are actions Metrolink can take to speed up the eventual implementation on its trains. The measure is pending in the Senate.

At Friday's meeting, Metrolink directors hammered at the Federal Railroad Administration for not being tough enough on railroads. They were led by MTA board member Richard Katz, whom Villaraigosa appointed to also serve on the Metrolink board in the wake of the Chatsworth crash.

"Unfortunately, it took 25 deaths for the FRA to become more active and aggressive in pushing safety features," Katz said. "They've been far too cozy with the railroads. . . . We really feel that the Federal Railroad Administration needs to step up."

The Metrolink board unanimously passed a wide-ranging measure aimed at increasing safety, similar to one the MTA passed a day earlier. Among the items included were appointing a panel of experts to recommend safety improvements; equipping cabs with video cameras as soon as possible; and installing devices to slow or halt trains when a warning signal is not heeded. These devices are already used on 30 miles of Metrolink track in Orange County, though the system is dated. Metrolink has a total of 388 miles of track.

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